Lewis Gilbert was born in Hackney, London, the son of a second-generation family of music hall performers, and spent his early years travelling with his parents, and watching the shows from the wings. He first performed on-stage at the age of 5, when asked to drive a trick car around the stage. This pleased the audience, so this became the end of his parents' act. When travelling on trains, his parents frequently hid him in the luggage rack, to avoid paying a fare for him. His father contracted tuberculosis when he was a young man. He died aged 34, when Gilbert was seven. As a child actor in films in the 1920s and 1930s, he was the breadwinner for his family, his mother was a film extra, and he had an erratic formal education. In 1933, at the age of 13, he had a role in Victor Hanbury and John Stafford's Dick Turpin, and at age 17 a small uncredited role in The Divorce of Lady X (1938) opposite Laurence Olivier. Alexander Korda offered to send him to RADA, but Gilbert chose to study direction instead, notably as an assistant on Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939).
When the Second World War started, he joined the Royal Air Force's film unit, where he worked on various documentary films. He was eventually seconded to the US Air Corp film unit, where his commanding officer was William Keighley, an American film director, who allowed Gilbert to take on much of his film-making work.
After the war, he continued to write and direct documentary shorts for Gaumont British, before entering low budget feature film production. Gilbert made his name as a director in the 1950s and 1960s with a series of successful films, often working as the film's writer and producer as well. These films were often based on true stories from the Second World War. Examples include Reach for the Sky (1956) (based on the life of air ace Douglas Bader), Carve Her Name with Pride (1958) (the story of SOE agent Violette Szabo) and Sink the Bismarck! (1960).
In 1966 Gilbert directed Alfie starring Michael Caine. Gilbert's wife Hylda discovered the play by Bill Naughton when she visited the hair salon and sat next to an actress who was in a production. Upon seeing the play, Hylda urged Gilbert to make it into a film. Gilbert used the technique of having the lead character speak directly to the viewer, a technique he later also used in Shirley Valentine (1989). Gilbert said Alfie was only made because the low budget was "the sort of money Paramount executives normally spend on cigar bills". The film won the Jury Special Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for five Academy Awards including best picture. Gilbert was also nominated for a Golden Globe for best director. The film was remade in 2004 with Jude Law.
In 1967, Gilbert was chosen to direct Lionel Bart's musical of Oliver! but contracted to another project had to pull out and recommended Carol Reed who took over.
"It was the lowest point in my life," said Gilbert. "I'd developed Oliver! with Lionel Bart. I had to do The Adventurers instead... While doing this film, I signed to do The Godfather. Because of their financial problems, Paramount could only find $2m to make it. I said it needed $7m". So instead Gilbert made Friends.
Although known for character dramas, Gilbert directed three of the James Bond films. After some reluctance, he was persuaded by Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli to direct You Only Live Twice (1967). Gilbert returned to the series in the 1970s to make The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979).
In the 1980s he returned to more small-scale dramas with film versions of Willy Russell's plays Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989). Gilbert also directed the film Stepping Out (1991).
He was awarded the CBE in 1997. In 2001, Lewis Gilbert was made a Fellow of the British Film Institute, the highest accolade given in the British film industry.
On 20 June 2010 he appeared on the BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs. In it he said of The Adventurers, that the film was a disaster, and that he should never have made it. On working with Orson Welles on Ferry to Hong Kong, he said that it was: "dreadful, it was my nightmare film. It was a dreadful film, and everything was wrong with it; principally him [Welles]." He also said that his biggest mistake was failing to direct the film version of the musical Oliver!. Its composer Lionel Bart had assured Gilbert that nobody else would do the film, but Gilbert was also contractually committed to Paramount to make a film (that he has since refused to name), which caused him to withdraw from the project.
He was married to the former Hylda Tafler for 53 years, until her death in June 2005; they had two sons, John by a previous relationship of Hylda, and Stephen who was fathered by Lewis.
All My Flashbacks: The Autobiography of Lewis Gilbert Sixty Years a Film Director was published by Reynolds & Hearn in 2010.